Virtualization roils traditional licensing models

VMware and Microsoft are separately attempting to wipe out two layers of uncertainty clouding server virtualization.

VMware recently revealed details of its ESX Server 3, which aims to improve virtual server management and availability. And Microsoft took a stab at demystifying the thorny issue of virtual server licensing.

VMware’s ESX Server 3, the release of its flagship enterprise-grade server-virtualization software, will bring a host of new automated management capabilities when coupled with the forthcoming VMware VirtualCenter 2.

One new feature, dubbed distributed availability services, allows customers to mimic the fail-over capabilities of clustered environments using virtual servers.

If a single physical machine running five virtual server instances should fail, for example, those five servers can instantly and automatically be brought back online on other VMware-managed hardware.

“We’re still saying some applications should be clustered, but for the 90 per cent of applications that you don’t protect with clustering today, you can virtualize them and get better, higher availability,” said Brian Byun, vice-president of products at VMware.

Also new for ESX Server 3 is distributed resource scheduling, which load-balances virtual server workloads across ESX Server hosts, allowing them to be managed in a gridlike fashion.

“Customers can drive the utilization of their servers even higher,” Byun said, explaining that utilization levels of 80 per cent or greater can be maintained safely with the new software. “Secondly, they have to do less resource planning and thinking about where they’re going to deploy which application.”

These new capabilities should make it easier for IT admins to consolidate server farms and improve resource utilization, but one lingering gotcha remains: How will they pay for it all?

Because virtualization allows multiple instances of an OS and apps to run on a single server, it plays havoc with traditional per-system or per-CPU software licensing models. So, when tallying up the software bill, when does a virtual server count as the real thing?

Microsoft took steps to answer that question last month when it announced a new pricing structure for Windows Server installations running on virtualized server environments. Under the new plan, customers pay only for the number of processors a virtual server is actually using, rather than the total number of processors in the box.

In addition, Microsoft no longer requires customers to pay licence fees for virtual server images that are not in use. This clarification means customers will be able to keep live snapshots of servers in known working condition for disaster recovery purposes without paying additional licensing fees.

“We think that Microsoft has done a great thing by understanding that virtualization is here to stay — and they’re going to have to change their licensing to accommodate it,” VMware’s Byun said.

Mware ESX Server 3 and VirtualCenter 2 are currently in private beta testing, with a wider public beta program planned for later this year. General release of the products is expected for the first quarter of 2006.

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